OFF THE COAST OF LIBYA – When the camera's viewfinder is in "night vision" mode, a hidden world appears that is invisible to the naked eye in the darkness of night. Bathed in green, the view is even more dreamlike — or nightmarish.
I can see hundreds of people packed inside a rickety wooden boat, wobbling on its northward journey.
It is 5 a.m. and I'm on board one of two inflatable boats, or RIBs, that have just left the rescue ship, the Astral. Thirteen miles (21 kilometers) north of Sabratha in Libya, it is time to bring the passengers on the wooden boat to safety.
EDITOR'S NOTE — Emilio Morenatti, The Associated Press' award-winning chief photographer for Spain and Portugal, spent more than two weeks at sea documenting the migrant crisis on the Mediterranean. Embedded on a rescue ship used by a Spanish volunteer group, he witnessed a tense operation to rescue hundreds of migrants traveling on a flimsy boat off Libya's coast on Aug. 29. His dramatic photos and video were used by media worldwide.
First, the rescuers from Proactiva Open Arms must distribute lifejackets to everyone on the boat and start evacuating the women and children. The Barcelona-based group, which started rescuing migrants off the Greek coast last year, has saved tens of thousands of lives in the time since.
It's not an easy task. This time, the cargo hold is full of "economy class" passengers, and getting access to them is impossible without first evacuating the open deck.
At first, no one heeds the instructions of the rescuers. Everyone wants to be the first to abandon ship and climb into one of the boats.
Chaos erupts among the hundreds of people crowding the deck. Some try to bring order by lashing at people around them with their belts, ordering them to stay seated and calm.
The rescue crews, joined by sailors of the Italian Navy, start evacuating women holding their babies from one side of the boat. Many other passengers move toward that side; the boat lists dangerously.
I think of my own two small children, and watch with mounting fear: Many of the kids aren't wearing life vests. What if they fall in? What if the entire boat keels over?
An hour later, in the first morning light, the top deck has gotten much more crowded, as passengers have climbed up from the crammed cargo hold. The boat grows even more unstable, prompting the rescuers to hurry up transferring women and children to the Astral, which is hundreds of meters away.
The RIBs are crammed with women clutching their babies. Many are ecstatic, crying and making gestures of gratitude toward the sky.
The deck of the boat is now completely packed and I can see how some who have come up from the cargo hold are forcibly cutting a path through the masses to the side of the boat, where they throw themselves into the water.
As I zoom out I see at least 10 or 15 men swimming toward us and the rescue rafts.
The chaos is playing out in such a wide area that, as I try to decide where to zoom in, I am seized by a sense of imminent tragedy. The boat starts rocking from port to starboard, and appears on the verge of tipping over, with some men falling off the deck and others hurling themselves into the sea.
Some without lifejackets cling to the side of the boat, trying desperately not to fall overboard as they await the assistance of the rescue crews.
The rescuers yell frantically at people to stop jumping. There are enough rescuers to help the dozen or so people who are swimming toward us. But if many more jump in, they're going to lose control of the situation. I think to myself that I will soon have to put aside my camera and start pulling people from the water.
But after more than 10 minutes, order is restored and rescue crews are able to evacuate all 700 people from the ship.
Soon, the deck of the Astral is overflowing with women and children. The children look confused. The youngest are twins, born five days ago in Libya, where their mother had fled from Eritrea. The women look exhausted but many are smiling, knowing they have survived the last and most dangerous leg of their journey to Europe.