MAURITIUS IS ONE OF THOSE exotic destinations that you read about but never actually expect to visit. Yet here I am, trekking through what remains of the island’s original forest cover in search of rare birds I’d been asked to photograph, to accompany various articles about the island as a luxury destination for travellers.
The threatened black ebony woods were once the realm of the dodo – and the echo parakeets, Mauritian fodys and Mauritian kestrels I am here to see very nearly went the same way as that avian poster-child for conservation.
But just as the creatures of the forest are rare and restricted to this green oasis in the western Indian Ocean, so is much of the island’s underwater life.
“Why is it called Emily Reef” I ask Jonathan, my dive-guide.
“Well, Richard” he says sadly, “You see, it was on this reef that Emily died.”
He looks sad for an instant, watching my “stuck for words” expression, but can’t hold it any longer, and cracks up laughing. He shouts a comment in Creole to his friend at the wheel, who laughs in turn, and the RIB speeds off through the waves at the outer edge of the fringing reef. These guys are going to be fun!
“It is a wreck,” he says. “It carried water and was sunk for the fishes.” His face is full of good-natured humour and typical of the welcoming population of Mauritius, derived
from African and Indian settlers with a smattering of Dutch, British and French genes and, of course, the cultural influence of these former colonial powers.
We speed past the mangrove-fringed coastlines. Every so often you can see
a Hindu shrine on the shore, often built in harmony with an adjacent Catholic one. The only thing that divides this small country is football, and I have a certain cachet attached to me, as I live near the fabled city of Manchester.
The folks I meet can’t really comprehend that I have never seen a football match in my life. They clearly think I’m a little odd. What does interest a fish geek like me is the reef, and I learn to tell people I live near Liverpool. Few folk want to talk about Liverpool.
Earlier in the week, we had discussed our dive plan and chatted through what I wanted to see. I wanted to match my photos of the indigenous animals on the surface with shots of the fish that also live here and on the nearby island of Rodriguez and nowhere else.
“Le poisson clown”, everyone suggests, which seems a good place to start. After all, everyone loves a clownfish. The thing is, it wasn’t going to be so easy.

AS ANYONE KNOWS WHO transports a camera and housing to foreign parts, it is an almost constant source of worry, “has it been knocked about by baggage-handlers” being the chief concern, but mine seems fine.
As we head out to a site known as Anemone Pass, which sounds ideal for my purposes, I turn the Nikon on, check that the flashguns are firing and my new 105mm macro is focusing. All is well, or so I think.
We roll off the RIB, signal OK and sink into the deliciously warm, plankton- rich waters, purging our BCs and keeping close. The view is a little murky – a less-than-average day in the Red Sea, I’d say.
We head down to the crack in the reef, thickly carpeted with anemones. There is my first Mauritian clownfish – Amphiprion chrysogaster has been spotted. All anemonefish are charming and great subjects for photography, but instead of the usual orange colour these guys sport a deep brown to black between their bright white stripes.
I check my buoyancy, line up the shot and look through the viewfinder to see – blackness. Have I left the lens cap on
With a sense of doom and the dawning realisation that I am in real trouble, I see the colour of the water inside my now-flooded, normally clear housing. It looks like weak tea with a green tinge of copper!
It’s the worst colour in any underwater photographer’s eyes. In a matter of minutes, the camera’s innards have started to dissolve into a warm saline soup of electronics.
The rest of the dive is something of a “going through the motions” exercise. I barely register the turtles, the shoals of snapper are of no concern, and the expanses of anemones are just animated gloop as far as I’m concerned.
I just want to hide in a corner.
So what went wrong I take the housing apart at the hotel and recheck the O-rings, and there it is – the ring between the port and the housing has a nick in it. Sulking like a kid at Christmas who gets the sensible present and not the X-Box, I retire to the bar for drink and melancholy.

AT SOME POINT IN THE MIDDLE of the night, I have a thought – is all entirely lost
I have another camera body, after all, and several lenses. Yes, my Nikon D200 is wrecked, but I have a D300s with me, and the fault was that of the O-ring, right I have a spare O-ring and, more importantly, I have a Swiss Army knife, a recent Christmas present that has lots of attachments. Can I pull it off
I had thrown the housing into our plunge pool, and as I sit there at 3am drying it off with my wife’s hair-dryer, I hatch a plan.
Clearly the TTL circuitry that allows the Nikon to speak to the flashguns is fried, but if I cut that out and twist the five wires together and insulate them somehow, I can hardwire the hot shoe connector to the flashgun bulkhead, I won’t get TTL, just the flash firing, but I often use manual mode anyway. This might just work.
There is one last hurdle. My housing, and more specifically the attachment to the backplate, is matched to each camera model. However, with a little adjustment (the saw-blade on the knife proving very handy), I can wedge the D300s in and it will fire and focus.
Nothing else; it doesn’t look good, but it might be enough.
So far, so good. The housing stays watertight in the pool all night and remains watertight at 5m when I’m snorkelling. The lens points through the dome-port at a slight angle to true, but I am ready.

NEXT MORNING, I TELL JONATHAN the story of my late-night camera surgery. He sympathises and, as a photographer himself, oohs and ouches in all the right places. I think he is as relieved as me when I give him the OK sign as we hang over the reef at 15m. Firing and focusing is all I need.
Below lies a gorgeous sight. The corals tend to be quite robust to withstand the frequent storms but they are colourful, their pinks and soft violets almost glowing in the tropical sun.
I follow Jonathan as he heads off to a small bommie he has visited a few times before, and points out several anemones replete with fish.
“Finally!” I say through my reg as I survey the scene. Three anemones with a pair of adult clownfish living among their tentacles, but they aren’t alone. They are joined by a few black-with-white-spotted domino damsels that are constantly being “moved on”
by the territorial clowns.
Their frustration with these squatters appears almost human. They just get one anemone clear, and then have to return to another and kick the little blighters out of that one.
With an immense sense of pleasure, I set about taking some shots. I balance the flash against the preset exposure and feel very smug with myself.
Every so often I look up at Jonathan, who is shooting the clowns, though for some reason they keep trying to attack his dome port and won’t pose for him as they did for me. Then there is a movement in the corner of my eye and a huge lionfish sitting close to my shoulder, with a look of “glad you’re here mate, I’ve been after these buggers for ages – let’s get ‘em”.
I may be reading too much into this, but as the clowns chased the damsels, the lionfish looked for a free meal from the confusion and here I am, adding a new element to the mix.
Normally lionfish keep a wary distance from divers and present their venomous dorsal spines to any potential threat, but not this guy – in his mind, I’m his ally.
Every time the damsels are ousted and have to flee into another anemone they are at risk from that cavernous mouth, but they always make it, and my presence isn’t putting them at risk.
Much to the lionfish’s annoyance, of course – every time they speed past, it looks more downhearted.
This of course raises an important issue. We are observers in this realm and should abide by some equivalent of doctors’ Hippocratic oath to “do no harm”. While I’m fascinated by the behaviour I have inadvertently engendered in this small community,
I don’t want to be the cause of removing one of the players from the drama.
As I can’t press the buttons on the camera back, I have to trust to fate that I have something acceptable on the memory card as we move off to explore the rest of the reef.

RETURNING TO THE SURFACE that was being gently pummelled by warm tropical rain brings with it a superb feeling. I have the shots I need, the housing has stayed watertight and I am heading back for a delicious fish vindalaye (the Creole version of a vindaloo, though a little more subtle).
The following dive is on a wreck called the Stella Maru, sunk as an artificial reef but landed on its side. Today the wreck is right-side up, a testament to the power of an ocean whipped into a fury by a cyclone in the 1980s.
As we drift around the wreck and enjoy shooting a huge stonefish, superbly camouflaged amid the sponge- and rust-encrusted wreck, I am in dive heaven. I’ve risked all and pulled it off.

Richard Aspinall stayed at Starwood Hotels’ Le Meridien Ile Maurice, www.lemeridien-mauritius.com, and dived with Easy Dive Mauritius, www.easydivemauritius.com