THE CHINESE ARRIVE with their ambassador, the Portuguese make their mark with stylish suits, the Croatians are being filmed for national TV, and every country has its flag to wave. This is the 11th CMAS World Underwater Photography competition, hosted this year in the Indian Ocean by the Mauritian Scuba Diving Association. Further information on CMAS and the competition, cmas.org. Mauritian Scuba Diving Association, msda-cmas.org
There are 26 teams from 16 countries, but where is the British team London resident Gerald Rambert, team-member for his home island of Mauritius, was looking forward to seeing them:
I wanted to beat Alex Mustard! Its a shame Britain hasnt sent anyone, there are so many good photographers over there.
But for now its the warm-up day, and some of the teams arent happy. Werner Thiele from Austria has a gripe about the dive sites: It was ridiculous - there were normal people there without cameras! And my air fill was only 150 bar, and it was bad, my model was sick... this is outrageous! There are other complaints about inconsistent air fills. To the competitors this is a serious business. When you have only 90 minutes under water, every bar counts.
Werner continues to stir up trouble. He tries to borrow Anna Kochergina from Russia. She has long blonde hair, ideal for modelling; but she doesnt have the heart to tell him that she is one of the teams photographers.
At the post-opening-ceremony party, each team is keeping tight-lipped about its strategy. Gerald will tell me only that the Mauritian tactic for the wreck of the Stella Maru has nothing to do with the wreck itself, while Jonas and Magnus from Sweden admit only to having a secret plan.
ITS THE MORNING OF DAY ONE, and on the boat the teams from Croatia, Brazil and the Czech Republic are sharing their thoughts about the other teams. Theyve been scrutinising the French tactics: They know exactly where to go! On one site yesterday they dropped in straight away and were off in a shot. How did they know that this was where the only two anemones were When we got to them, theyd been closed up!
On the boat over the Stella Maru, the Swedes are puzzled. The other teams dont seem keen to get in, but surely this would be their best approach, to monopolise the wreck But theres no time to be perplexed. They take the opportunity for pole position and make straight for the bow.
The Russian team are next in, and have to settle for the superstructure, but the Mauritian team-members are still on the boat. Could this be part of their plan The Mauritians spend a few minutes on the wreck and then, feigning disappointment that the best spots are taken, make for some small spurs of coral about 30m away.
Gerald starts his search for leaf-fish. They were there yesterday, but now theyre nowhere to be found.
The back-up plan kicks in, and they start to monopolise an appealing selection of anemones, all full of small fish and brightly coloured shrimps.
Its not long before the Russians and Swedes become suspicious. What is so absorbing the Mauritian team They must know something - this is their home turf. Soon the spur is over-crowded, a Russian fin accidentally kicks the Swedes, and the Mauritians get frustrated when one of the Swedes kicks up some sediment. Dirty tricks or accidents Well never know.
Back on the boat, the Swedes are in an especially good mood. Were taking our best shots today, and tomorrow, they say and, turning to the Turks: Well model for you! Standing up on the boat, they demonstrate their walk like an Egyptian poses, break the ice - and any misdemeanours below the surface are forgiven.
THERE IS NO DOUBT that when it comes to dive sites, the Mauritian team have a competitive advantage. At Lost Anchor, Gerald slides into a hole in the reef that allows him to place a perfect gorgonian within centimetres of his dome port. Estee, his model, takes up position; she knows instinctively what Gerald needs.
But this time its not other teams getting in the way, but the referees. They have no idea how wide the 10.5 fish-eye lens is, and proceed to impede most of the shots. Gerald waves his fist at them and motions them to move away, but they dont seem to get it. By lowering themselves in the water column, all they succeed in doing is placing a stream of bubbles in the background of Geralds shots. They could be ruined.
At the surface, some of the other teams have had their share of upsets.
Wu Lixin from China surfaces at exactly 90 minutes and there is some controversy over his tank - was it really empty Did he miss out on any deco
There is also confusion over Turkeys tactics. They bring their camera up at 90 minutes and then return to their safety stop, resulting in a 101-minute dive.
François, the lead organiser at the sites, is showing signs of frustration: Forget the camera! Im more worried about your bubbles, what about your safety Their condition is monitored and there are no signs of decompression sickness. More importantly, they stay in the competition.
The favourites so far are the Italians and the Spanish but, as Ladislav from the Czech Republic points out, its still up to the judges - and no matter how good you are, theres still an element of luck. You just dont know what you will find.
Day Two, and the teams have had time to reflect. The Ukrainians are pleased with themselves. Yesterday we found some interesting creatures, octopus, lobster, small and brightly coloured shrimps, and the wrecks are very beautiful, very good opportunities for photographers.
Russian Anna Kochergina doesnt share their optimism. The judges dont like the wrecks, theyre nothing special, so today we are looking for something exceptional. I ask what that would be. She hesitates: Who knows Theyre still not giving away any tactics.
Theres a mix of emotions as Dive Three approaches. The Swedish team are confident: We have three out of five of the shots we need, but Gerald Rambert is showing signs of frustration: Were going back to Lost Anchor to get the shots we missed, because there were bubbles everywhere. Ive lodged a complaint, but I dont think it will make any difference.
This time the Mauritian team are ready to go as soon as the boat stops - they drop in and the clock starts. But the boat captain is some distance from the main site. As Gerald and Estee fin as fast as they can to their gorgonian, I wonder if the captain was in cahoots with the Mauritian team. With a grin, he tells me later how: I didnt know the site that well. Truth or island conspiracy Whichever, it gives Gerald the chance to claim his spot ahead of everyone else.
His model Estee sets herself up for her run, and after the dive she tells me that I started at 20.4m and glided in at an angle I knew would work. At this point in the competition its precision that counts, and Gerald is taking no chances. Estee completes several runs with slightly different leg and torch positions.
The spot soon fills up, and Gerald decides to move on. He searches for something new to photograph, but one minute becomes 10, and still he has no subject for his fisheye lens.
Then he waves Estee out of the way: its a turtle, stationary, uninterested. Gerald goes vertical. Upside-down, he slowly lowers himself through careful breathing onto his target. He lets off several shots before the turtle moves on.
Estee thinks shes reading Geralds mind as she adopts a glide position on the other side of it, but in these frantic last moments of the dive, this isnt what Gerald wants. He still needs a wide angle without diver shot, and this turtle is the perfect opportunity.
Over lunch there is live music, dancing and interviews for the media to take everyones minds off the competition. But then its back to business - and with the sun out, the wreck sites are suddenly popular.
Gerald opts for Water Lily, a site with two barges inhabited by shoals of snapper and lionfish. Its the perfect spot for wide-angle, fish and macro.
Gerald gets straight to work on a lionfish. Hes waiting for the yawn, but its just not happening. He fires off several shots, but its not what he wants.
Estee knows that Gerald needs to maximise on this dive, and finds a colourful nudibranch - ideal. He switches to macro.
Were in the last 15 minutes of the competition, and the tension is intensifying. As Estee approaches two lionfish, she fails to see a Spanish competitor setting them up for a shot.
He looks at her incredulously, takes his regulator out and shouts at her.
Sound travels under water, although not well enough to understand his expletives. He looks around for support and then, perplexed, suddenly remembers: Oh yes, I need to breathe! In a flurry, he grasps his regulator and places it back in his mouth.
SOME OF THE TEAMS are confident enough with their portfolio to embark on what looks like competition knobbling. Whereas Estees encounter with the lionfish was an accident, Im not sure about some of the other tricks I witness.
Bubbles in the water column, sand kicked up, fin-kicks and disturbing shoals of fish. Fouls or accidents Even the referees cant decide.
With a few final shots, Gerald and Estee start their journey to the surface. They have attracted 24 minutes of deco stop time, and manage the surface just within the 90-minute limit.
All the other teams get back on the boats in time, but there have been some disasters. Wu Lixin from China has suffered a flooded camera, but hes OK - he rescued the memory card, with its precious cargo of 12 shots.
Would he have enough variety for the judges He is philosophical: Maybe, but Im really here to learn. There are so many excellent photographers here, and I still need to improve my technique.
The votes are in; the judges have made their decisions. Its time for everyone to sit on the edge of their chairs.
Gerald scoops a silver medal for his photograph of a nudibranch, found on the last dive by Estee. His picture of a turtle is ranked 8th in the Wide-Angle Without Diver category but, despite all his efforts, his picture of Estee over the gorgonian at Lost Anchor does not feature in the rankings.
Wu Lixin is overjoyed to win silver in the Close-up With Theme category, his face a mixture of surprise and delight.
Magnus Lundgren from Sweden wins silver in the fish category, narrowly missing a gold by 0.1 of a point and being pushed out of a bronze in the Close-up Without Theme category, also by 0.1 of a point.
There are some interesting examples of point scoring; one photograph is awarded 0.9 points by one judge and 9.0 by another. With this variation, how could any photographer predict what the judges are looking for
And there is more controversy with the Spanish votes. Which country do you think they favour Why, Spain of course.
The Swedes arent happy: We could have had a gold and a bronze if there had been less difference in the votes. Youll never break the Garlic Belt - its just like Eurovision!
Take a look at the top 10 world rankings, and they may have a point. The overall winner is Carlos Minguell of Spain, with Portugal, Italy and France dominating the rest of the leader board. Gerald is placed 9th overall world ranking, one of only two top 10 competitors not from the Garlic Belt.
Is there anything in this conspiracy theory, or is it just a question of the best photographers winning
That question will be asked every year, but is it really important
Its time for the end-of-contest waterfront party, time to stop the secrets, the planning and the plotting; time for 16 countries to join each other in a celebration of their obsession.
ITS 4AM NEXT MORNING, and most of the teams are setting off for the airport. The Portuguese are still cracking jokes as if the party hasnt stopped. The other teams look on in disbelief, as one or two hangovers start to settle in for the day. But there has been a lot to celebrate.
In the airport lounge I bump into Werner Thiele, who is still complaining: Its an outrage - and there are many of us who will appeal.
He fires up his computer. Theres a photograph of a dead bird on his screensaver, and hes very proud of it: Theres a long waiting list to get a licence to shoot them, he explains.
He shows me a wide-angle photograph of his model over a wreck: Tell me why this wasnt in the top 10
Where do I start The diver is centred; the foreground is overexposed and it doesnt create an interesting enough point for the eye to lead away from.
Im about to tell him this, but then I remember that this is a man with a dead bird on his screensaver. I shrug, and wish him well in the next competition.
On the plane to Paris, several of the teams are still poring over their pictures. Ladislav from the Czech Republic passes comment on the judgments: When the scores vary from 0.9 to 9.0 for the same photograph, you learn that this really is a subjective game.
Does it differ from the Eurovision Song Contest He laughs. Like Eurovision, its good to come home with a medal, but its also about the event, the sharing of ideas and the atmosphere.
For Ladislav, and for the rest of the competitors, its not just about the winning, its a home for their passion. Perhaps next year Britain will be able to share the experience