Held on November 28 to December 2, 2018 in Mabini, Batangas, in the Philippines, read on as Andrew Lim tells all about his experience taking part in the 6th Anilao Underwater Shootout photo competition organised by the Philippine Department of Tourism (PDOT)’s Office of Product and Market Development Dive Group.

The 6th Anilao Underwater Shootout is an experience I’ll never forget. The beach, booze, and amazingly talented beautiful people gathered together at a world-class diving spot (with an unlimited supply of nitrox) is every underwater photographer’s slice of heaven.

We touched down in Manila with the warmest of welcomes by the Philippine Department of Tourism, where a representative presented us with pretty hand-made wooden necklaces before ushering us to the car. Who knew, just a short two hour drive later, we would find ourselves at perhaps one of the best dive spots I’ve ever been to.

The contestants and judges enjoying the bartender performing his mixing routine (Photo by Andrew Lim)

We arrived at the charming Acacia Resort and Dive Centre where everyone was busy setting up and preparing for the welcome party. It was impressive. Handmade lights with colourful paper streamers hung from the branches of a large rain tree whose majestic shadow loomed above the pool. A DJ booth, stage, and screen were being set up right opposite, and the bar barely had enough space for me to rest my camera on. It was a familiar scene, very much like the full-moon parties you’d see along the beaches of Krabi, only this was better because everyone there had a shared common passion – the ocean.

By around 6pm, a crowd made up of sponsors, event organisers, media, and contestants started to gather. Music was playing and the food, oh the marvellous food, was being served. We had opening speeches by the organisers, talks by sponsors, and words of wisdom by the judges. The competition had finally begun.

The sumptuous buffet spread at the Anilao shootout (Photo by Andrew Lim)

My first day of diving was an eventful one. I heard incredible stories of how Anilao is a macro haven and I was honestly a little bummed out that I had to use my wide-angle setup because I had to document everyone who was shooting. I mean, media right? It turned out to be a blessing in disguise, however. I was completely blown away the second I got into the water. Vibrant and lush corals spanned as far as the eye could see, and visibility was spectacular. The reefs were teaming with life as the little red jewels that are Anthias blanketed the overall underwater landscape. No words could describe the beauty I witnessed, so thankfully I got some photos.

Laurent Ballesta hard at work looking at photos (Photo by Andrew Lim)

We had the pleasure of joining the judges on a number of dives where we saw the masters at work. It is one thing to hear them speak about what they’ve done and how they do it, and another to witness them in their element in person. Laurent Ballesta, rock star of the diving community and the first scuba diver to take photos of the Coelacanth, donned his really cool rebreather system and was busy shooting a pygmy seahorse while I swam past. Just the night before, he was sharing about his impressive expeditions at the Antarctic as well as The Gombessa Project.

Famous Belgian underwater photographer, Ellen Cuylaerts, giving a talk to contestants about underwater photography (Photo by Andrew Lim)

I spent quite a bit of time with the beautiful Ellen Cuylaerts, grand protector of our oceans. I noticed that she wasn’t shooting so much during the first few dives, but later realised that it was most probably because she was just living in that moment, soaking in the beautiful reefs that seemingly engulfed us. It showed so clearly her passion and love for the oceans, which ultimately should come first to us underwater photographers. It is so easy to forget why we even take photographs in the first place. We are always so caught up with getting the best shot that we forget to take a step back and fully appreciate whatever is around us. Ellen served as a reminder to me that getting the perfect shot is usually a by-product of enjoying a moment. Perhaps that is why her images have such a soul to it.

Indra Swari had a sharing session later that evening where she showcased her work. She talked about one thing in particular that struck me. Backscatter has always been a photographer’s nightmare and we are constantly cleaning our photos to make sure the background has no particles. She, however, pointed out that in some rare instances, backscatter could just add to the overall image and feel of a photo. I took that with me on my very first blackwater dive later that evening.

Backscatter providing depth in a photo taken during a blackwater dive (Photo by Andrew Lim)

The boats set out at about 8pm and the crew dropped a line of lights into the dark abyss. On normal night dives, all you see is the spot where your torch shines. This doesn’t happen here because you are basically floating in mid open-water and your light has nowhere to bounce off. You feel all alone, but only for a minute. Strange but magnificent creatures of the night started swarming around me. This is it. This is what Anilao is famous for and I was loving it.

The boats that are used to carry the contestants out to sea (Photo by Andrew Lim)

It took awhile for me to get used to this type of photography, but with William Tan’s tips and advice I believe I got the hang of it pretty quickly. William Tan, a master of macro photography, is actually the person who introduced me to underwater photography years ago when I was just a teenager. Here, he was one of the judges during the competition and he gave an extremely important talk about integrity in photography and how “a right photo is better than a good photo”. This again served as a perfect reminder to all of us, to not get overly caught up with getting the perfect shot at the expense of everything else around us.

After a good five days of back-to-back dives and talks, I found myself in a room with the panel of judges. It was judgement day and the contestants had given it their all. The judges were seated in a circle, quietly rating their favourite images on an online portal. As there were hundreds of photos to go through, it took them almost an entire day! The hard work paid off later that evening when we were all invited to the closing ceremony at the gorgeous Aiyanar Beach and Dive Resort. It was grand. The nicely draped tables and chairs were laid underneath the stars and there was a tent at one side where two buffet lines spanned. We even had amazing performances by dance groups and singers.

The esteemed panel of judges of the 6th Anilao Shootout. From left: John Thet, Ellen Cuylaerts, Laurent Ballesta, Robert P. Alabado III, William Tan and Indra Swari (Photo by Andrew Lim)

John Thet, CEO of Asian Geographic Magazines, and the final judge of the competition, gave a closing speech talking about the importance of conservation and sustainability and how all of us have a part to play. He also gave the contestants an insight into how the judging was done and stressed the importance of fair play. It was something the contestants really appreciated.

The competition this year had a slight spin to it. It was the first time the Philippines Department of Tourism introduced live judging for the blackwater category. The shortlisted photos were anonymously flashed on screen one by one and the judges put up their hands indicating the points given with their fingers. It displayed true transparency and fair judging.

All the winning photos from the Anilao Underwater Shootout were truly amazing! You can see all of the winning photos here!

The well-deserved winners were called up on stage and the generous prizes by the sponsors were handed out. With such a well-planned and incredibly executed competition, I totally understand why the Anilao Underwater Shootout sees such a huge growth year after year. Like I said before, it is an experience I’ll never forget and one that I would highly recommend to divers. I look forward to the 7th Anilao Underwater Shootout because I know that it will be absolutely “rad”!

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