Diving into the Heart of Southeast Asia

Over the past ten years, intrepid underwater photographer Daniel Heng (CS’05) has put together an enthralling portfolio featuring whale sharks and other sea creatures.

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Last year, when he scuba dived in Cenderawasih Bay, a remote island in east Indonesia, Daniel Heng (CS’05) found himself only a hair’s breadth away from about six whale sharks.

While the aspiring documentary filmmaker tried to obey diving rules of keeping a distance, the gentle giants, about 10 metres in length, had no such inhibitions. A whale shark’s sandpaper-like skin even brushed against his hand while he was holding his camera, leaving an immediate abrasion on his gloveless knuckles.

“I got swiped by their tails; sometimes when I’m trying to film a whale shark, another just climbs over me to get to food,” said Heng, who joined Channel NewsAsia as a full-time television producer in September last year.

VIDEO COURTESY OF: DANIEL HENG / YOUTUBE

For the past 17 years, Heng has been a scuba diving hobbyist, seeking out rare sea creatures to photograph in diving spots from Indonesia to Borneo. The 37-year-old earned his diving license in his first year at the Wee Kim Wee School of Communication and Information, when his friends who were part of Nanyang Technological University Dive Club invited Heng to join them on their organised trips to diving spots. Heng fondly recalled saving up to purchase his very first underwater camera two years after graduation, which stoked his passion for diving.

“I think it’s a little bit like going on a safari; it’s the thrill of spotting fishes or marine life in their environment that’s interesting.”

Daniel HengFinal Year Project Supervisor

His underwater photography adventures have been anything but easy. In his whale shark expedition in Cenderawasih Bay, he had to handle his gear — a waterproof Ikelite camera case strapped to his Canon 6D camera and an occasional drone for aerial shots — and be quick and alert to capture the perfect shot while not forgetting about fundamental safety protocols. The deeper he dived, the greater the increase in air pressure and nitrogen accumulated in his body, so Heng had to resurface regularly before it reached toxic levels.

Not one to balk from photography challenges, Heng braved strong currents to capture some of his favourite photography subjects such as nudibranchs (vibrant sea slugs) and pygmy seahorses. Heng shared that capturing small sea creatures involved stamina and mastery of scuba finning techniques to keep a steady, clear focus while using a macro lens.

While most people name sharks as one of their greatest fears at sea, Heng said he always looked forward to spotting them on his coral reef escapades.

“It’s always a good sign to have sharks around,” he said. “Usually you can only find sharks if the reef itself is healthy.”

Heng added that sharks are, in fact, the least of divers’ concerns. He recalled his close encounters with venomous creatures such as the blue-ringed octopus and komodo dragons, and his harrowing episode in a popular dive spot in Borneo called Sangalaki, where he had to anchor himself to the coral seabed against surging currents.

Despite several close shaves, Heng still dives at least once a year, spending hundreds and sometimes thousands of dollars on a single diving trip. While he mostly shares his photographs on his personal Facebook page, he also uploads footages from his scuba diving quests on his YouTube channel.

“I think it’s a little bit like going on a safari; it’s the thrill of spotting fishes or marine life in their environment that’s interesting,” he said.

A Final Year Project Drama supervisor at WKWSCI for the past nine years, Heng often encourages students to focus on making a film that they would be proud of rather than worry about how it would score.

“If they come out and work in (the TV and film) industry, it’s very rare that they will get complete creative control ever again, so they should take this one chance to make a film that is meaningful to them,” he said.  

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